Translating Specialized Terms

Some new editions of the ESV include a section in the preface explaining the ESV translators’ philosophy toward translating certain specialized terms. If you’ve wondered why the ESV translates YHWH as “the LORD” (with small caps), why “Christ” instead of “Messiah” occurs consistently throughout the New Testament, or why the ESV uses “behold,” here are your answers:

In the translation of biblical terms referring to God, the ESV takes great care to convey the specific nuances of meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek terms. First, concerning terms that refer to God in the Old Testament: God, the Maker of heaven and earth, introduced himself to the people of Israel with the special, personal name, whose consonants are YHWH (see Exodus 3:14-15). Scholars call this the “Tetragrammaton,” a Greek term referring to the four Hebrew letters YHWH. The exact pronunciation of YHWH is uncertain, because the Jewish people considered the personal name of God to be so holy that it should never be spoken aloud. Instead of reading the word YHWH, they would normally read the Hebrew word adonai (“Lord”), and the ancient translations into Greek, Syriac, and Aramaic also followed suit. When the vowels of the word adonai are placed with the consonants of YHWH, this results in the familiar word Jehovah that was used in some earlier English Bible translations. As is common among English translations today, the ESV usually renders the personal name of God (YHWH) with the word LORD (printed in small capitals). An exception to this is when the Hebrew word adonai appears together with YHWH, in which case the two words are rendered together as “the Lord [in lower case] GOD [in small capitals].” In contrast to the personal name for God (YHWH), the more general name for God in Old Testament Hebrew is ’elohim and its related forms of ’el or ’eloah, all of which are normally translated “God” (in lower case letters). The use of these different ways to translate the Hebrew words for God is especially beneficial to the English reader, enabling the reader to see and understand the different ways that the personal name and the general name for God are both used to refer to the One True God of the Old Testament. Second, in the New Testament, the Greek word Christos has been translated consistently as “Christ.” Although the term originally meant “anointed,” among Jews in New Testament times the term came to designate the Messiah, the great Savior that God had promised to raise up. In other New Testament contexts, however, especially among Gentiles, Christos (“Christ”) was on its way to becoming a proper name. It is important, therefore, to keep the context in mind in understanding the various ways that Christos (“Christ”) is used in the New Testament. At the same time, in accord with its “essentially literal” translation philosophy, the ESV has retained consistency and concordance in the translation of Christos (“Christ”) throughout the New Testament. A third specialized term, the word “behold,” usually has been retained as the most common translation for the Hebrew word hinneh and the Greek word idou. Both of these words mean something like “Pay careful attention to what follows! This is important!” Other than the word “behold,” there is no single word in English that fits well in most contexts. Although “Look!” and “See!” and “Listen!” would be workable in some contexts, in many others these words lack sufficient weight and dignity. Given the principles of “essentially literal” translation, it is important not to leave hinneh and idou completely untranslated, and so to lose the intended emphasis in the original languages. The older and more formal word “behold” has usually been retained, therefore, as the best available option for conveying the original sense of meaning.
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